Family travel for me often means flying. Which, now that my third child has reached the age of 2, means shelling out for five plane tickets. Even with budget flights, the final cost has many, many zeros behind it. Plus tax. And various surcharges. Until my future teens decide to opt out, or we move closer to our extended families, it’s just something we know we’ll have to live with.
Still, I have figured out some ways to cut little expenses that, when calculated for five people, adds up. Here are 11 ways to cut family travel costs — be sure to add your own in comments. (No, really, I want to know!)
1. AirFareWatchDog and other fare alert sites
Because two of my kids are in school, spontaneous travel is somewhat restricted. Still, I’ve signed up with several last-minute travel sites (Bing Travel is one of the newest). Just plug in the airport(s) you are willing to depart from and a handful of cities you’re always interested in visiting. Sure, it’s a lot of extra email you’ll be deleting daily. However, routes going for $19 each way? That makes even a short, short trip worthwhile.
2. Keep the school calendar near your computer.
This helps with No. 1. Do these last-minute fares coincide with the upcoming teacher in-service day? I’m not a fan of missing school for any old reason, but if the kids grades are good and they’re not behind in school work, maybe missing next Monday wouldn’t be the worst. Especially if it meant spending a long weekend with Grandpa, right?
3. Don’t buy the baby a seat.
I know, this is kind of controversial. And it may not be an option much longer. But air travel is safe. If you’re comfortable with the risk, and with your almost 2-year-old in your lap, then go for it. Though be warned: you may have to pay a fee for you lap baby, as well as on that fee.
4. Consider one or more stops.
Yes, come travel day you will regret this decision. But if non-stop flights cost $100 more than one requiring a layover in Denver? You’ll turn over $500 more plus taxes.
5. If non-stop is a must, consider a layover on your return flight.
It’s the nickel-and-dime differences, remember? Be fresh from a non-stop flight on the way there. Knock yourself out if you have to on the way back. Remember, you don’t have to unpack or be “on” in your own space. You can fight and meltdown in the car on the drive home from the airport.
6. Pack light.
Unless you’re buying the kind of tickets that include 1 bag per passenger at no extra cost, consider taking only two (or one!) suitcase for the whole family. Two decent outfits for each person and then a whole bunch of clean underwear for all (plus jammies). No extra shoes. Buy diapers and wipes when you get there. If two outfits isn’t enough, load everyone with a third outfit in their carry on back packs. Some airlines charge $25 a bag. A family of 5 can save $100 bucks if you just take one suitcase.
7. Even if you’re going to see relatives, consider a travel package. Getting airfare, hotel and car rental (if you must) in a bundle is big savings. Ditch the kids with the grandparents some or all nights and think of your hotel as a second honeymoon (or at least a reprieve from making breakfast in the morning).
8. Take at least one laptop or smartphone. Look for deals before and while you’re there — half-price museums on Tuesdays, for example. Or try and find the deals offered to locals. And if you’re eating out most meals, be sure to line up a few nights using this site: MyKidsEatFree.com. (Also, when planning your trip, check out the “My Kids Go Free” section.)
9. If you’re hardcore, find a deal on a hotel suite, where you’ll have a fridge and minimal cooking facilities. Some really frugal families pack a Crock-Pot and load it with Spaghetti-Os, but I’d pay the difference for a restaurant meal every time. I’m cheap. I’m just not gross.
10. Try renting someone’s house.
Even in the high seasons, last-minute deals are possible. Stay flexible, of course. And keep looking. Start here but Google for others.
11. Trade places
Instead of paying for a hotel room or suite, trade your house with someone else — anywhere in the world. Sure, this takes planning — few last-minute folks can pull this off. But it makes your housing basically free. Start at HomeExchange.com and try Googling sites that match travelers. And don’t worry about where you live or how un-Paris apartment your ’70s suburban tract home is. You’re not the only family in the world looking to save money!
Bon voyage! (And leave me your tips in comments.)